A hesitant radical in the age of Trump: David Brooks and the search for moderation

The New York Times columnist rejects Trumpism – but understands what has enabled it.

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David Brooks is often called the in-house conservative at the liberal New York Times but his columns are much more interesting than that reductive label would suggest. Unlike many Republicans, he is not an anti-government Randian. He rejects Trumpism but understands what has enabled it. In recent years, his probing twice-weekly columns have become more preoccupied with ethical, philosophical and theological questions.

“It’s a matter of conviction that public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised,” he told me when we met for coffee one recent morning in London. “That we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.”

In his 2015 book The Road to Character, which is about humility and moral courage, Brooks, 56, writes of how the “marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the moral stakes involved in every day decisions”. The competition to succeed becomes all-consuming.

So, what has gone wrong with capitalism?

“If I had to reduce it to one phrase, it would be a crisis of ‘social solidarity’,” he says. “Just a breakdown in social fabric, a rise in loneliness, a rise in isolation, a lot of people feeling their dignity’s been assaulted; they’re invisible, they’re not part of the project.”

Donald Trump’s supporters have a generally realistic view of his qualities as a human being but, Brooks says, “they figured he’s my shot at change”. When asked about Trump, his rule is to say that he is the wrong answer to the right question. “We have to address the fragmentation of society. The suicide rate in the US for white men, life expectancy is dropping not rising, opioids are everywhere, so those are symptoms of the larger isolation.”

The previous evening Brooks had been the principal guest at a Legatum Institute dinner, to which I was invited but could not attend. In 2016, I’d tried without luck to speak to him when I was making a programme for BBC Radio 4’s Analysis about the changing behaviour of young adults who, data suggested, were the most socially responsible generation since the 1960s. Brooks had written that we were entering a period of social repair and this idea was the starting point for my programme. So it was good finally to meet him.

Like many notable American conservatives, Brooks started out on the left. “My parents were scholars of Victorian history and house-swapped with Margaret Drabble back in the 1970s. We lived here [in London] and we had the New Statesman at home and all through my childhood.”

He was a socialist through high school and college; he was assigned Edmund Burke in his freshman year and loathed what he read. “But then when I became a police reporter in Chicago covering crime and social decay, I came to understand Burke’s belief in epistemological modesty: the world is just super complicated, we have to be careful how we plan. And so I became more Burkean… and took a wandering through American conservatism.”

Brooks has made serious mistakes as a commentator – one of which was robustly supporting the Iraq War, the kind of grand, far-reaching “neoconservative” project to which, one would have thought, as an anti-utopian sceptic he would have been opposed. “Well this is the great irony, of course,” he says now. “So I wrote a column arguing with Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, and I said what would they make of this? And they said they would not like this, they would be very sceptical. And then at the end of the column I wrote two paragraphs about why I thought they were wrong. I wish I could take those two paragraphs back!”

American politics is even more divided and ideologically polarised than here in the UK. Brooks values moderation. “You know I like the phrase ‘hesitant radicalism’.”

And he is a meliorist. “I believe in incremental change but constant change. To be a Burkean, in America these days, is to be a moderate, which is what I think I’ve become. It’s not to be a populist right-winger, or a Reaganite-Thatcherite type.”

He believes politics, in essence, is a competition between partial truths. “Being a moderate does not mean picking something mushy in the middle, but picking out the strong policies at either end, because politics is essentially about balance, getting the balance right.”

One of Brooks’s intellectual heroes – as well as one of Barack Obama’s – is the theologian-philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. “Nothing which is true,” Niebuhr wrote, in a passage quoted in The Road to Character, “or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.”

Can we really be saved by faith? “You know, it’s a challenge to me,” says Brooks, who self-identifies as being “religiously bisexual” (he is Jewish and profoundly influenced by Christianity). “Faith teaches you that human beings have infinite dignity but also are greatly broken. And that’s a nice balance to keep in mind, a wise anthropology. It’s a source of moral wisdom that has been lost, whether you subscribe to faith or not.”

Moral wisdom: this is precisely what Donald Trump lacks in this age of upheaval. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia